I have a latent desire, more like an impossible dream, to one day write a children’s book. Rather than do anything real about it (like actually write stories instead of blog posts!), I feed the desire by reading children’s literature and about the lives of famous authors. I find the writing process in all its various incarnations very interesting. When I saw The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims on the new books shelf right by the exit at the library, I doubled back to the circulation desk to check it out. How could I possibly pass it up?
The Story of Charlotte’s Web is subtitled E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, so it is not an exhaustive treatment of White’s life. Instead, Sims sets out to chronicle the parts of White’s life that led to his writing of the beloved children’s classic. In other words, what sort of life did this man lead that enabled him to so colorfully and expertly paint a word-portrait of barn life? Sims says this in the introduction:
White’s attitude toward nature, with its unblinking response to the inevitability of death, strikes me as realistically hard-headed despite being wrapped in anthropomorphism. A farmer who wrote children’s fantasies needed both ways of thinking. During my research I became fascinated by other aspects of White’s personality as well. From childhood to old age, he was painfully shy, terrified of speaking in public or before a microphone–yet hugely ambitious and willing to try almost anything when no one was looking. Afraid of commitment and romance and confrontation, he hid behind animals even in his early love poems and letters to his wife. (3)
E.B. White, called Elwyn as a child but Andy for most of his life, was the youngest child born to middle-aged, affluent parents in New York in 1899. His maternal grandfather was William Hart, a landscape painter of the Hudson River School, and this love for nature and ability to accurately render the natural world in a form for other people to enjoy was something that White obviously inherited. His father’s upward mobility as a businessman afforded the family the opportunity vacation in Maine, a state for which White developed an almost immediate and profound love. In fact, it was to this state that White and his wife, Katharine, would eventually move permanently, doing most of their writing and editorial work by correspondence. White enjoyed being a “gentleman farmer” in Maine, and it was there that the idea for Charlotte’s Web would take hold and grow.
This literary biography traces White’s career as a writer, of course, and the development of the publishing industry for children’s literature puts in a cameo appearance. St. Nicholas Magazine, Ursula Nordstrom, The Horn Book–they’re all here in this account. Reading the banter back and forth between White, his editor, critics, and other writers was one of the most interesting parts for me. Another impression that was reinforced to me after reading this is just how much hard work is involved in writing a novel (or anything, really). While White’s sparse, pefectly timed story might seem like it just developed, fully formed, in his imagination, in reality this was not the case. For example, Sims reports that White “tried various alternatives for the ending, as he had wrestled with practically every page of the book,” finally settling on that wonderful closing phrase which he actually borrowed from a letter his wife Katharine wrote in his defense after a New York Times writer criticized his writing style:
A’s letter to the Times needs no defense against such words, nor does anything he has ever written. They are not words that should be applied anyone who is an honest man and an honest writer. Andy is both. (206)
I enjoyed reading this book. Lately I haven’t enough endurance for reading nonfiction, but at less than 250 pages of text, this book was just the right length to prevent the reader miring up in the details. I’ve left out a great many of the things I particularly enjoyed about this book, but the greatest one, which I hinted at before, I’ll mention again: I am intrigued by the whole children’s book publishing industry and its development. In a startling case of synchronicity and serendipity, I happened to read a review of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom over at Here in the Bonny Glen just as I was finishing up The Story of Charlotte’s Web, in addition to noting Melissa Wiley’s mention of Katharine White’s book of garden essays. The synthesis part may come if I manage to procure a copy of either of these books and read it for myself.
I’m finishing this review this Saturday morning as my girls listen yet again to The Trumpet of the Swan in audio in their bedroom. From Charlotte’s self-sacrifice to Louis’s singular voice to Stuart Little’s sophisication, the longevity of White’s works attests to his genius. Reading The Story of Charlotte’s Web was a joy and a delight, like reading Sam Beaver into the future. Highly Recommended for the children’s literature fan, especially. (Walker & Co., 2011)